Science and Style

Modern thinking tends to draw a divide between the role of the scientist and the role of the designer. Artist versus mathematician, architect versus engineer – the two are often considered incongruous at best. This alienation has not always been the case, however; in fact, science has played a significant role in architectural design from antiquity to modern day. The architect’s image has always incorporated at least some conception of technical knowledge, dating back to the role of architect as master builders. Some of the largest architectural transformations have come from scientific research, whether it be developments in materials and engineering practices or the invention of new design tools.

In the construction industry, the discovery of new materials and building practices, whether through research, accident, or exploration, has helped fuel the development of new and daring architectural styles. The use of fired brick and extremely durable concrete by the Romans “influenced the construction of both old and new building types,” from the Pantheon to the Colosseum (Cole 126). The rapid spread of Islam from the 7th to 12th centuries brought with it “a mature theory of structural mechanics, the pointed arch, vault, squinch, and dome” (Cole 178). Twelfth century cathedral building, which Arnold Pacey views as the beginning of the modern era of technology (Pacey 23), only saw the achievement of “soaring space” due to the development of stone rib vaults (Cole 194). Gothic architecture, so signature in its use of verticality and light, was merely a synthesis of the latest construction techniques: the pointed arch, ribbed vault, and flying buttress (Cole 200). Other technical inquiries influenced architecture as well, as seen in the continuing interest in the control, use, and display of water. Alberti included information on the supply of water to drive mills in his De re aedificatoria, and Palladio’s villa designs of the 1500’s were “notable for the waterworks that supplied fountains in the garden and water for the kitchen…Water supply was, indeed, one of the branches of engineering most closely connected with architecture” (Pacey 69).

The Industrial Revolution highlighted this connection between science and architecture. “New materials, new technologies, and new systems of construction would radically alter traditional building forms and would make completely new building types possible”, leading to an explosion of new varieties and styles  (Moffett 379). The use of iron, perhaps the most important development to come out of the Industrial Revolution, changed the face of the construction industry. The ability to create steel frames in a variety of shapes and sizes freed buildings from reliance upon load-bearing walls; this, together with the inventions of air conditioning and the elevator, ushered in the skyscraper as a building type, revolutionizing our urban environments. Just as material science allowed architects and engineers to predict what would happen in their buildings (rather than reflect on past experience), developments in metalworking offered them the physical strength to explore new formal territory.

Materials and engineering are not the only scientific advancements that have influenced architectural design, however. The tools and techniques used by architects have also seen (and caused) significant changes. Thirteenth century architecture was marked by the advent of cathedral building and the Gothic style. Much of the design of these magnificent buildings can be traced back to the ‘ad quadratum design’ method employed during the time, which relied on a “system of construction lines based on the geometry of a square.” Indeed, in describing the techniques of the time, Pacey emphasizes the use of geometry, citing “clear evidence that Euclidean geometry rather than measurement was the basis of drawing” (Pacey 50). Several hundred years later, Renaissance architecture adopted the techniques of proportion and scale as its driving forces. Alberti’s De re aedificatoria, published around 1450, drew much of its material from Vitruvius’ De architectura and highlighted this emphasis on proportion. The effect was so widespread that it showed up at all levels of design. Since the invention of the printing press “radically changed the rate at which ideas could spread,” new practices in architecture and engineering were no longer the sole property of the intellectual elite. The work of ordinary builders was just as heavily influenced (Pacey 78).

It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that drafting as we know it today became a specialized architectural process. The reason for this may be that during this period, architects began to use drawing techniques that allowed them to depict (on paper) even the most complex three-dimensional objects (Moffett 395). Additionally, during the 1800’s, an explosion in print media and order catalogs flooded architects with a wide range of building components and styles previously unavailable to them, perhaps helping lead to the numerous styles developed in the years that followed. This architecture of choice accelerated even more during the 1860’s, when the invention of blueprinting allowed the humble drawing to be copied relatively instantly. Over 100 years later, drafting entered the digital age, with Autodesk releasing its CAD software in 1982. Merely ten years later, three-dimensional modeling programs entered the scene, and in another short decade they would become so influential as to spawn their own styles of design. The development of these programs was followed by a proliferation of formal and geometrical experimentation, which was only achievable due to the computer’s ability to maintain and adapt consistent technical information about the building form as a whole. Analog methods have seen a decline since the advent of the computer. Whether this is good or bad, it is evident that digital technology has become the preferred medium for architectural exploration and representation.

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An architect’s job lies in the coaxing of his or her ideas into built form. To do so, those ideas must first be represented, and it is this step that is most affected by the ongoing development of the architect’s toolset. Ideas have become easier to represent, freeing them from many of the constraints that once held them back. Where a drawing of a building used to be arduous and entirely manual, that drawing eventually became instantly copied, then instantly edited, and finally even instantly updated and generated. Once descriptive geometry permitted architects to represent their buildings entirely graphically, they were “relieved…of the necessity of daily attendance at the job site to direct progress of the work” (Moffett 395). Similarly, the BIM software that is central to many of today’s firms attempts to predict the answers to many of the architect’s tectonic and structural considerations. Information is becoming increasingly embedded into the medium; issues are left up to the consideration of the tool, rather than the designer. The software also presents the user with an initially limited palette of options, just as the product magazines of the Industrial Revolution allowed architects to “shop” for building pieces. This host of catalogs and CAD blocks means less problem solving by the designer and more authority shifted to the tool itself.

This development of digitized tools, along with the accompanying scientific developments, have led to an architecture less rooted in the physical world. Since the Middle Ages, the role of the architect has gradually distanced itself from that of the engineer, as the practices of mechanical and civil engineering became separate fields (Moffett 395). Despite being continually influenced by science, architecture has found its validation in other venues, from the social causes that followed World War I to the variety of artistic movements of the 20th century. Formal exploration became increasingly easy, with scientific research leading to lighter, stronger, smaller materials. When the computer came onto the architectural scene in the 1980’s, it provided the perfect avenue for non-tectonic expression. Entire theoretical projects could be conducted with ease, bringing to life wild visualizations of impossible scenarios. Architecture could finally be both idea and representation, as malleable as an early sketch yet containing all of the information of a finished building.

The tools of the designer are beginning to occupy an increasingly prominent role in the design process. Digital tools detach the designer from reality, providing an avenue for the expression of vague ideas while simultaneously “intelligently” filling in the gaps with pre-programmed details. The automation of this process is not inherently bad: the danger lies in the shortcut it offers to the inexperienced designer. The need for less consideration and decision-making on the part of the architect carries with it the danger of diminished and shifted responsibility. Considering the role that tools and methods have played in the history of architectural design, effort should be taken to ensure that these tools do not contribute to any further separation of the architect from his or her inherent responsibilities.

Cole, Emily. The Grammar of Architecture. Boston: Bulfinch, 2002. Print.

Moffett, Marian, Michael W. Fazio, and Lawrence Wodehouse. Buildings across Time: An Introduction to World Architecture. 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004. Print.

Pacey, Arnold. The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1992. Print.

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